Racial and ethnic groups in Northern Madagascar

As described in ‘Are Malagasys racist?’, race and ethnicity matter in Madagascar. Although it may look as if everybody is a crazy mix, these are the main groups that I have identified.

In Antsiranana, the racial groups are:

  • Coastal Gasys
  • Plateau Gasys
  • White people – Vazahas
  • Chinese – Sinoa
  • Indians – Karan
  • Arabs
  • Creoles

Coastal versus Plateau Malagasys

This subheading, Coastal versus Plateau Malagasys, implies competition and conflict. This is a fair representation of the situation; there is much suspicion and bad feeling between the groups.

In simple terms, the ethnic groups of the plateau are largely of Indonesian origin, so that many people have glossy Asian hair and Indonesian features. The Coastal groups are largely of African descent.

Historically, the plateau tribes, primarily the Merina, dominated the other tribes for three centuries leading up to the French colonisation.

Some of their dominance was based on having a more complex society structure and beneficial relationships with the British. But, their dominance was also enforced by slavery and war.

It is not ancient history by any means and the memories of the coastal people are long and seemingly unforgiving. Their resentment is reinforced by each generation with constant criticism of the ‘bourozan’, the disrespectful name for the Merina, almost whenever there is an opportunity to have the discussion.

In turn, I think it is fair to generalise that some people of the plateau consider their own culture more advanced and sophisticated than that of the coastal groups. Certainly, when I go to Tana (Antananarivo) there are many things that feel more developed than in the coastal regions.

Understandably, there are not many Plateau Malagasys in Diego because they have to deal with feeling unwelcome. If they are here, they tend to be in a secure financial position and have come because of work or through a marriage (normally to a Vazaha, it’s rare for them to marry a Coastal Malagasy).

However, there are extremes of wealth on the plateau with some of the country’s richest and poorest residents. So, as well as the bourgeouis Merina that come here there are also teams of low paid workers working on things such as road projects.

Just yesterday I sat having a drink with a local woman explaining to me why the plateau people were all racist (and uncaring and greedy), at least the pale skinned ones are. I eventually gave up pointing out that she was being racist by saying this as she just kept giving me more examples to prove her case. I have had this conversation many times here.

Vazahas – white people

Vazaha means stranger. Vazahas come from ‘andaf’ which means overseas. The term Vazaha is used almost exclusively to mean white people, or any thing that is not of Malagasy origin, e.g. You can speak Vazaha, listen to Vazaha music etc.

I’ve posed the question of whether foreigners of other racial origin are also Vazahas but, in general, these people would be called African, Chinese (probably covering any countries of Far East), Indian (covering all of Indian sub continent) etc. And mixed race people are just called mixed race (my son is known as Vazaha Gasy – like this site).

If you’re Black British you will just cause confusion. Jean, my partner, wouldn’t see anyone who wasn’t white as truly English when he was in England. It didn’t matter how many times I explained about successive invasions by the Vikings, the Saxons and the French – White people were British and anyone else was African or Indian. Similarly, American Peace Corps volunteers will not be accepted as American if they’re not White (and, Yes, we have all tried explaining the ‘melting-pot’ aspect of American immigration).

Resident Vazahas tend to be French but there are also many Italians, especially on the tourist island of Nosy Be. I suspect we will see increasing numbers of Southern Africans as they are increasingly investing in tourism here. Americans tend to be Peace Corps volunteers or working for an NGO. In Diego, the British are all Frontier or volunteering for something – there aren’t that many of us in Madagascar.


There are many people of clearly Indian descent here as they tend to marry within their own race and religion. They probably dominate the economic life of the Antsiranana region more than the Vazahas. They run many businesses from small shops to major import-export concerns.

Most of the Indians are Muslim, with women often wearing an outfit that comprises of a skirt and a top piece, with head covering in pastel material with embroidery.  For some reason I keep having visions of pastel versions of the Wicked Witch of the West on her bike every time I see an Indian woman on the back of a moped.

The non-Muslim Indians are primarily Hindu.

I interact with people of Indian descent a fair bit; including my French teacher, the older married couple neighbours opposite (rare to find coastal Malagasy couples that have married once and stayed together), and various women at aerobics. It is not uncommon for them to have family in Britain or, like the local tailor, to have lived on Essex Road in Islington himself.


People have come from China at various points over the last 150 years, mainly to help with construction of roads or to escape conflict at home. I imagine that there has been quite a bit of intermarriage because there are relatively few people looking ‘pure’ Chinese but lots of people with some Chinese features.

Apparently, in Madagascar …”there are about 30,000 Chinese, the majority of them came from the Pearl River delta in Canton.”

The first major wave of Chinese immigration to the Indian Ocean was as indentured labour in the nineteenth century, when slavery was abolished. However, many of these people returned to China when their contracts were finished. So most people who stayed are from free immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century.


I had to do some asking about this group as I wasn’t sure what constituted being called an Arab here and, like the Chinese, they don’t seem to be a racially pure group. As with much of coastal Africa, most of the contact with outsiders before the European scramble for land was with Arab traders. Most of the African slave trade went on with Arabs long before the British started shipping people to the New World. Therefore the influence of Arab culture goes back a long way.

However, many Arabs came to Madagascar, mainly in the North around the 1800s – apparently most originated from Yemen. They were especially involved in trade around the Port.

Unlike the Indians, they have intermarried a fair bit (marriage should always be taken in the loosest sense of the word in Northern Madagascar). Muslim men are entitled to marry non-Muslim women as the women take the religion of the man (her whole family is supposed to do this also I understand). So they didn’t need to only marry people who were already practising Muslims.


I had tried without success to identify the true meaning of the term ‘Creole’ here by asking many people who call themselves it, all from Reunion Island. I’ve either had vague or conflicting answers.

By looking it up on the internet, I can now see why there is this confusion.

The Wikipedia page on Creoles says:
“The term Creole…has been applied to people in different countries and epochs, with rather different meanings… and originally referred to locally-born people with foreign ancestry.”

“…in the Indian Ocean, the term denotes someone whose ancestry is so mixed that they don’t belong to the other categories (small white, big white, Indian, Chinese, and so on).

In Reunion island, creole is a more inclusive term that denotes all those born on the island.”

Nearly all Creoles that one meets here are from Reunion, a tiny island 880km to the East of Madagascar (not far from Mauritius) which is part of France.

The people that visit from Reunion tend to be mixed race with some nearer the black end and some near the white end. Sometimes you meet someone who looks 100% white but it’s rare.

There is a high rate of relationships between men from Reunion and women from Madagascar. Men from Reunion appear to make up the highest percentage of foreigners marrying Malagasys and are frequently‘sex tourists’ (or men who pay for sex whilst they’re here on holiday – they may not like being called sex tourists). It’s common for Reunion men to find girlfriends here that they see on repeat visits (and not uncommon for the local girl to have more than one of these boyfriends). If the girl is lucky, the man ends up marrying her and taking her to live there. If the girl is really lucky the man turns out to be a gentleman to her as well (I know of one girl who is desperate to come back as her Reunion husband drinks and hits her).

So, there are a lot of children of mixed Malagasy / Reunion parentage which makes them a whole Indian Ocean mix anyway. Diego is full of visitors from Reunion at holiday times, back to visit family.

Apparently, much of the black racial origin on the surrounding islands, such as Reunion is from Malagasy slaves who ended up there. I also heard (BBC World Service) that a high proportion of the ‘Coloureds’ in South Africa are also of Malagasy origin.


11 Responses

  1. You have an amazing facility for writing in an engaging and informative way. Where does it come from? I don’t have the patience to make it happen.



  2. “For some reason I keep having visions of pastel versions of the Wicked Witch of the West on her bike every time I see an Indian woman on the back of a moped”
    Isn’t this comment racist as well and aimed at subtly influencing the reader towards having a negative perception about the entire community from the Indian subcontinent????????

  3. Hi Veekay

    I was concerned about this statement when I wrote it so you may have a good point. I reflected on my motives. I think it’s just the image of the two piece outfit flowing back in the wind, like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz when she’s on her bicycle flying past the window.

    I have similar concerns in writing many posts on the blog – although mostly about local Malagasys. The problem is that if I sanitise my thoughts too much, they become unnatural. And, much of the source of my writing is the tension / humour to be found in being from one culture, living in another.

    If it helps, my Malagasy partner is currently in England with me and spends his time finding funny and irritating and shocking aspects to our culture.

    Anyway, sorry if it caused offence and thanks for taking the time to comment. The debate of what is and isn’t racist is a complex one.


  4. Just a quick answer to your “Racial and etnic groups in Mada.”
    I wish to correct your erroneous statement that the Merinas dominate the other ethnic groups of Madagscar ford 3 centuries. The Merinas started to conduct military expeditions during the reign of Radama I only (1810-1828). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Merinas were still composed of divided tribes inhabiting Imerina. It was only at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the reign of Andrianampoinimerina (1787-1810) that they started to unify under the leadership of that king. Before the nineteenth century, the ethnic group le plus puissant à Madagascar was the Sakalavas. They had even made at some times numerous razzias for slaves in Imerina.
    Please study carefully the true history of Madagascar, not the one circulated widely by the Merinas, to revise the history of Madagscar (intellectual dishonesty and desinformation). If your knowledge is insufficient, please do not pretend to write the history of Madagascar. You are insulting the other ethnic groups of Madagscar.


  5. Hi William

    Thanks for your comment – I am happy to be corrected. I can’t even remember where I got the ‘3 centuries’ timeline from but it will have been from some book I had read. I think your dates sound more accurate – and reflective of things I have read since. I will go back to the books and update things.

    I’m going to slightly justify writing about things when ‘my knowledge is insufficient’…in that, if I got too cautious about writing things until every fact was fully checked, I would never write a post. This was often troubling but I have countless half baked posts that I haven’t posted because I wanted to find more information.

    However, I decided it was often better to get something down rather than be too tongue-tied by self doubt…because there isn’t much well structured information, in English, on Malagasy culture – and I may have serious gaps in my knowledge but I do also know some things.

    However, for a post as important as this one…I should be constantly striving to get it right (or as ‘right’ as any one description of history can be). I will look back at this post when I get a chance. Sounds like you would be a good person to re-write?

    And I apologise if you think I’m insulting the other Malagasy groups – I was actually most nervous about offending the Merina – as I live amongst the Sakalava / Antakarana and was aware that many of my perceptions of the plateau ethnic groups is based on fairly biased reporting the other way.

    Feel free to continue the debate – sounds like I need educating.

  6. It’s fine . I’m sorry if I was too ruff with you. I’m sure you meant good.
    I was a little bit annoyed by so many misrepresentations of Malagasy history, even from the so-called Malagasy “historians” . Most of them come from the Haut-Plateau and they do not exercise intellectual honestyand their favorite past time is to distort Madagascar history and to emphasize the history of the Merina people only. In fact, for them the history of Merina tribe is THE history of Madagascar. For them, the remaining tribes of Madagascar do not have history or their side of the history is not worth to be told.

  7. Hi Ruth,
    Wow, this is an impressive and unique compilation of thoughts and conversation. The blogosphere is truly an astounding thing.
    I came across your site while doing a little bit of googling for an essay I’m writing for an application as student intern to the US consulate in Mada this summer. I’ve been dreaming of going there ever since I spent a year in Mauritius about 12 years ago. Now, as a sophomore at Yale University, I’m considering a major focused around ethnic factors in politics and am seeing how to combine this with my desire to go back to off-coast Africa. If all goes as plan, I will also be writing a final paper on Madagascar for a political science class I’m taking–as it is obvious that you have accumulated significant insight into Malagasy life, (despite your humble downplaying of the fact) I was wondering if at some point in the future you could answer some questions about current events or public sentiments that might not make it into the press, or perhaps just help guide some of my ideas.
    Either way, congratulations on the success of this post and sorry about the length of the post.


    Sam Miles

  8. (*”success of the blog”)

  9. Dear William,

    What you wrote about the Merina Kingdoms prior Radama I and his father appear to be accurate. These lines are published in many books by Europeans and Cotiers and Merina authors. You did not make them up: they are verbatim from many Merina source books.

    So, where are you finding the proof that Merina historians have intellectual dishonesty and prone to falsehood? They wrote what you are reporting here as correction. As an example, read “Rabesahala-Randriamananoro, Charlotte Liliane (2005) Ambohimanga-Rova : approche anthropologique de la civilisation merina (Madagascar)” (this book is shelfmarked YF.2008.a.32702 at the British Library http://www.bl.uk/)

    I also agree with you when you wrote that those who come from the Haut-Plateau like to write about their history. Good for them! They like to read and work a lot too! Probably they tend to emphasize their story most. Probably their own history is what they know best, so their ego gets boosted by writing about themselves. About who’s history are the Russian historian writing most? Are the French historian to blame for writing a lot about France?

    But when you write that the Merina writers wrote only about their story, you are exaggerating. Just, go to the British Library or The Library of Congress websites and find history about the other tribes of Madagascar. Soon, you will realize that the most prolific authors about all tribes of Madagascar are Merina! Frédéric Randriamamonjy, the author of “Tantaran’i Madagasikara Isam-Paritra (The history of Madagascar by Region)” wrote a lot about all tribes of Madagascar.

    When you wrote “…they do not exercise intellectual honesty and their favorite past time is to distort Madagascar history and to emphasize the history of the Merina people only” at least you are not honest. I do not mean to be rude but there are more appropriate words to qualify what you are doing! Just make a nomenclature of published scholarly research about anthropology and ethnology of Madagascar and find out that most of the authors are Merina or Europeans!

    When you wrote “In fact, for them the history of Merina tribe is THE history of Madagascar. For them, the remaining tribes of Madagascar do not have history or their side of the history is not worth to be told”, I am appalled beyond words. I wonder why such strong statements are uttered and printed. Have you published any scholarly literature about any of the other tribes of Madagascar?

    Anywhere I have been, in most parts of Madagascar or abroad, I have met men and women Marina married to someone from other tribes. You know well that is not the case for all tribes of Madagascar. So please study some more or refrain to make false statements.

  10. Dear Ruth Frost,
    You are a courageous woman and I have not meet many like you. I hope God bless you and your loved ones. I appreciate the way you relate what you see. Please, do not sanitize your writings. Bob Dylan would not have written his great lyrics if he were to let people write what he wanted to sing!

    When you wrote “If they are here, they tend to be in a secure financial position and have come because of work…”: that is utterly true. Most Merina I know in some parts of the world are go getters who get there because of “making a living”, which they translate into “mila ravin’ahitra” (looking for green grass). Are they to blame for looking for green leaves? In their language, being honored is translated into “mahazo vonin’ ahitra” (getting the flower of the grass).

    Then you continued “… or through a marriage normally to a Vazaha”. Ruth, you are right. I can imagine that most Merina into mixed race relationship you encounter in Diego Suarez are married to a Vazaha. They are following their mates, as naturally as it is! If a Merina man was married to British woman, I would not be surprised to find them in the nice places in the coast of Madagascar, such as Diego Suarez, or other places the mate is used to be such as Tel Aviv or Paris, why not?

    However, when you write “it’s rare for them to marry a Coastal Malagasy”, you should have added “where I live, in Diego Suarez.” If you meant that your statement is true everywhere, you are utterly misinformed! The next time you are in Antananarivo, try to find out where are the wives of retired Merina “fonctionarires (civil servants)” who worked years in the Coastal areas of Madagascar from! They spent the best of their years teaching, preaching, providing health care or whatever their work (looking for green grass) is in the coastal areas, got married there and retire in the Highlands! No racism meant! They retire in their Merina villages because they are required to participate to some family businesses. And they want to be buried with their kin when time comes for them to be “lasakorazana (join the ancestors).”

    By the way, when you pass by Antananarivo, try to find out from where are some of the wives of the civil servants of costal origin who work at Antananarivo. Most of them are married to Merina women. And, for civil servant women of costal origin to be married to Merina men is not rare too! Further, when you get the opportunity to be in France when the People of Madagascar gather once a year during the RNS (sporting gathering), you will find many Merina men and women married to someone from coastal regions of Madagascar, or anywhere in the world such as the United Kingdom.

    So, please refrain from unsubstantiated strong statements. You are just adding to the bread and butter of misguided Costal politicians who use racism as political agenda!

  11. Dear Bruno,

    I am Merina but first I am Malagasy, and I am really impressed that you know Madagascar, my country so well. I can say you are a “Zanatany”: son of the Land (an affectionate name given to Vazaha, obviously not a son to a Malagasy by blood but a rightful son to the country because of his/her knowledge and attachement to the land). Thank you for giving a broader view, and a global approach which is more just and honest, rather than just assuming that Merinas are “racists”.

    Dear Ruth,
    I won’t deny that race issues exist in my country, but they have never been major ones which lead to civil wars in so many other African countries for example. Still, no matter how some people mostly (if not all of them) politicians tend to push on the race card button, we Malagasy people heart ourselves a country and as a people. Madagascar is above all an island. We are about 18 ethnic tribes who had fought, had intermingled, had make peace for more than a thousand years, but at the end of the day our ancestors be them Malayo-Indonesians, Africans, Arabs or any other ethnicity managed to give us an undivided territory, and a strong sense of unity and identity mostly embodied by our unique language, understood from North to South and through the East and the West of this huge, continent-like island.

    And I would like to add that the country is composed of 18 ethnic groups, so it is hard to define itself as one group standing opposite 17 other!!! It is an aberration to suppose that “Plateau Malagasy” largely consist of Merina, because there are the Betsileo, the Bezanozano, the Sihanaka who don’t live to the costs, as well as “traditionally” labelled coastal tribes who are actually part “plateau” or even a perfect half plateau half coastal…I think about the Sakalava, the Bara, the Tanala, even the Antaimoro etc etc…My point is that my country is much more complex, a richer and longer history than being a plain Merinas vs Coastals. Not to add the “newscomers”. As well as Vazahagasy exist, Sinoagasy is a way larger group than Vazahagasy for instance, as well as Komorianinagasy. Isn’t it cute how we just add “gasy” to everything? It is the way we are. Welcoming, peaceful.

    As Bruno said, you should have added “…in Diego Suarez”, even more “…a woman in Diego Suarez told me that…” Without any partiality, just look at what makes the whole country: Presidents, Prime ministers, Ministers, Heads of the Army, Heads of the Churches, High Civil Servants, prominent Cultural figures, politicians… every key sectors that rule our lives are perfectly equally held by everyone without ethnicity segregation. It is a better judge of our essence as a nation and as a country.

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